Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors has taken on several forms recently, including the inventive rap adaptation Bombitty of Errors and the Aquila Theater production set in the present day. The Judith Shakespeare Company transplants the play into the Prohibition era, adding elements of silent film to the production.
The play is fairly straightforward. Identical twin brothers were separated during a shipwreck, as were their mother and father and their identical twin servants. The mother, Aemilia (Sherry Nehmer), one son, Antipholus (Clark Carmichael), and one Dromio servant, (Leese Walker), ended up in Ephesus. The father, Aegeon (Jeffrey Shoemaker), the other son, Antipholus (Kevin LeCaon), and the other Dromio (James Pinkowski) landed in Syracuse. As the play opens, there is a political conflict between Ephesus and Syracuse. A Syracusian, namely Aegeon, is scheduled for execution in Ephesus at the end of the day. After several comic mishaps of mistaken identity, all of the characters realize their connections Scooby Doo-fashion and everyone lives happily ever after.
Jason Ardizzone-West's set is left entirely black and white to suggest the silent film era. Matthew Loren Cohen sits in the corner of the stage playing live ragtime and jazz on piano that punctuates the slapstick humor of the play. David Kaley's costumes complete the play's transition into the 1920s, with a pink sequined flapper dress for the courtesan (Susan Beyer), a suit with spats for the Duke of Ephesus (Mark Brey), and a loud gypsy outfit for the goldsmith Angela (Kate Konigisor). The only weak point in the production is a feeble strobe light used periodically to make the action on stage look choppy as in a silent film. It comes off as a technical malfunction of sorts.
Director Joanne Zipay's interpretation of Comedy of Errors highlights all of the play's humor, with the actors tumbling gleefully about the stage and pronouncing the dialogue with silly accents. However, she also elucidates some of the tension in the play, such as the rather unjust treatment of both Dromios by both Antipholus; the two servants are constantly being beaten, kicked, and blamed for things that are not their faults. In this way, Zipay manages to draw some social commentary from one of Shakespeare's least profound scripts.
The actors put in laudable performances. The lines are well-articulated so that the audience can catch Shakespeare's wordy witticisms where they are often lost in live performance. The slapstick is equally funny, as each actor shows a mastery of comic timing and Chaplin-esque facial expressions. The energy and charisma of LeCaon and Pinkowski make them the stronger Antipholus-Dromio pair. Carmichael and Walker are not absurd enough, strange as it sounds, and Carmichael rarely delivers his lines fully facing the audience.
With the exception of the beatings, Judith Shakespeare Company's Comedy of Errors is blissfully ridiculous, proving the universality of Shakespeare's 400-year-old humor.
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The Judith Shakespeare Company touts itself on pushing gender boundaries in Shakespeare, and the epitome of such limit-testing is their Julius Caesar with all of the gender roles reversed. This spices up Shakespeare's most boring play for about half an hour, at which point female actors can't do any more for it than males.
Director Joanne Zipay's Caesar is exceptional on an intellectual level. While the casting is gender reversed, the language remains in tact, emphasizing the arbitrariness of all gendered language. For example, Caesar (Jan Leslie Harding) still refers to her male partner as her wife, and the female-cast males still call each other "he." The gender reversal is mysteriously disturbing at times, which may upset the female audience member who thinks of herself as a progressive woman. For intangible reasons, Zipay's Caesar forces the audience to consider how deeply ingrained societal gender roles really are.
Caesar was presumably chosen for this particular effort because it is so "masculine," but the play is simply weak. It recounts the organization of the conspiracy against Caesar (hastily done with little justification), Marc Anthony's (Alice Gatling) efforts to restore Caesar's name, and the spirit of Caesar causing the deaths of the conspirators. Save a few intense scenes (such as "Et tu, Brute?" to be sure), Shakespeare's script is slow-moving and superficial. There wasn't a place where the actors could have picked up the timing of the scenes, yet the play dragged on for three hours.
Gatling and Jane Titus as Cassius are extraordinary. Both have strong, booming voices that fill the house and flesh out their political characters. Both are extremely emotive in their delivery, with near-perfect enunciation. Unfortunately, the supporting cast is flimsy, wildly overacting their paltry lines and bit parts as citizens and servants. Furthermore, the battle scenes are far too anticlimactic despite the efforts of fight choreographer Dan O'Driscoll. The stage is too small and the actors too few to create truly dramatic fight sequences.
Caesar is generally strong on the production side. Jason Ardizzone-West's set is stark white, with five clear, etched plastic screens lining the left side of the stage. As the actors pass behind these screens, their appearances become warped, emphasizing the conspiracy element in the play. Jaie Bosse's lighting flashes bright red during Caesar's murder and cold blue for the meetings of the senators. Rob Bevenger's costumes, however, confound what period this Caesar is set in; the senators are clothed in contemporary long jackets and fitted pants, while the citizens appear in early 20th-century knickers and stockings.
Judith Shakespeare Company moves Julius Caesar in a thought-provoking direction, but the weakness of the original script and an uneven production detract from a noteworthy project.
Comedy of Errors and Julius Caesar opened July 1 at Mint Theater (311 W. 43rd St. btw. 8th and 9th Aves.) and runs through July 22. Performances are Tues.-Fri. at 8 p.m., Sat. and Sun. at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call 532-8887 for reservations.